The year was 2008. A 23-year-old Sunil Chhetri had made his India debut the previous year and was in Portugal on an exposure tour with the national team. Yogesh Joshee, a Fifa-licensed football agent, happened to visit the India camp, where he met team coach Bob Houghton.
Houghton singled out Chhetri as the player with the most potential; Joshee made the future captain his first Indian signing. Until then, Chhetri had played for top Indian clubs such as Mohun Bagan, JCT and was to join East Bengal.
Soon, he was on his way for trials to English clubs Coventry City and Queens Park Rangers, besides earning short stints in the United States with Kansas City Wizards and Sporting CP in Portugal.
It was one of the first instances in Indian football where a player was represented by an agent. Until then, the most essential aspect of a footballer’s career was his prowess on the field.
Chhetri’s case set an example of how an agent could change the fortunes of a footballer. It made matters off the field as important as a player’s ability on it.
When Joshee entered the Indian market, he was the first Fifa-licensed agent to do so. On the back of Chhetri’s signing, he went on to represent other promising names such as Subrata Paul, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu—all of whom played for the country.
The stamp of approval by football’s governing body made the agent’s credentials all the more authentic, besides the fact that there were few operators in the market then. But at the end of the day, it was his networks that mattered most, alongside a business acumen that could fetch the best deal for his client.
“When I started out, there was no agent-and-player concept in India. It was loose—clubs used agents just to help them find foreign players. An agent could dictate all the terms,” Joshee says.
What was taken for granted around the world for years was now making its presence felt in the Indian market and drew mixed reactions from the fraternity.
“At that time, there was no concept of an Indian player having an agent looking after his interests. Clubs balked at the idea of having to deal with an intermediary to discuss terms with their own players,” says Arvind Narayan, co-founder of Libero Sports, an international player management and football consulting company that entered the Indian market in 2010.
Over the next few years, players realized how an agent could change their fortunes. With the entire concept still relatively new in India, there were not many options to choose from.
Some, such as Anuj Kichlu, were already associated with the sport through events and the Football Players’ Association of India. When his buddies and national team players—Nirmal Chhetri and Gourmangi Singh—approached him, Kichlu sat for his Fifa agent licensing exam and soon, transformed their friendship into a professional relationship.
Kichlu’s player representation company, Football Edge, was subsequently launched and today represents both Indians and foreigners.
Fifa’s agent licensing system was discontinued a few years ago, when they realized that about 70% of international transfers were pulled off by representatives who weren’t approved by them. It was impossible to keep track of player agents who were operating in the market—most of them without a license.
Since then, it has been enough to just register with the local federation—in our case the All India Football Federation (AIFF)—before getting on with the task of spotting players. With the potential that the industry held and the ease with which one could get going, it offered a dream job for a few.
“Whether there was an accreditation system or not, clubs only dealt with agents they trusted. The scrapping of Fifa licenses may have invited many unqualified people into the business, but at the same time, clubs never cared about who had what license. They simply dealt with those who delivered good players at a fair value,” says Narayan.
After spending eight years in the merchant navy, Sonu Lamba looked to settle down after he was blessed with a daughter. He remembers there being just four operators in the business when he got going. It all started out with facilitating Anwar Ali’s deal to Mumbai FC in 2013. Today, he has Chhetri on his roster, alongside some 30 other players.
“Player management had been a distant thought for a while. Five years ago, it was not easy to sign players, since they were not aware of what an agent does. Now, you see a 19-year-old take his time before choosing an agent,” says Lamba, director at management agency Four Flags.
Footballers soon realized the potential of an agent. If he managed to get the right person on board to represent him, he could entirely focus on the game, raise the bar, and in turn, hand his agent better bargaining power for the next season.
Clubs too made peace with the fact that these agents were here to stay. In turn, agents started casting their net to identify the next big thing in Indian football through a network of academy coaches and scouts.
When Karan Sawhney graduated from the Tata Football Academy in 2012, he was signed by Libero Sports for a two-year period. They got him a trial at Goan club Salgaocar, helping him enter the world of club football.
Others such as Ashutosh Mehta, who came from Mumbai FC’s youth system, never had an agent when he started out, negotiating contracts on his own before the start of each season.
The agents too figured out their own deals, depending on the player. When it came to a known face, they would sign on the player and make their money through a percentage of the contract. This, in turn, demanded an investment in time and resources on the agent’s part, since the amount he made depended on the contract he got his player.
On the other hand, lesser known players had to pay the agent for his services—more like an investment that he could recover later through the contract earned.
From one perspective, the agent’s reputation in club offices is not all that different from a player’s on the field.
“It’s a bit of a wild west with random agents trying to get deals across the line, but I think the dust will settle in the coming year or two and the credible agents will have a place while the cowboys with a short-term mindset will fade out,” Narayan says.
The launch of the Indian Super League (ISL) in 2014 was a game-changer for football agents and players alike. With eight new ISL clubs—expanded to 10 in the coming season—clubbed with the I-League and the second division, there was an exponential rise in the demand for players. This encouraged a lot of new agents in the market, in addition to securing international partnerships and cooperation between these representatives.
Anglian Management Group (AMG) started signing players since the start of the ISL in 2014. One of the success stories they are proud of is Milan Singh. The midfielder had turned out for India at the Asian Games in 2014, but was out of a contract, besides failing to make the ISL draft.
“We began to work on his comeback,” remembers Nikhil Sharma, CEO at AMG.
“We proposed his name to Derrick Pereria, who was the technical director at DSK Shivajians. Though the team didn’t do well, Pereira worked really hard on him. Pradyum Reddy was looking to recruit a central midfielder for Delhi Dynamos after the I-League season. When another option didn’t work out, Milan got his shot, became (then) coach Gianluca Zambrotta’s automatic choice and worked his way back to the national team.”
For the first three seasons, the I-League was played after the ISL. As clubs preferred to go with recognized faces, it led to a pool of players who featured in both the leagues, despite some of them facing burnout due to the tight schedule and lack of recovery time.
When I-League clubs began to shut shop (starting with Mahindra United in 2010) after AIFF’s failure to show them the path ahead, it led to a situation where a number of players failed to find employment. In fact, a few chose to take a salary cut, instead of finding themselves without an employer.
That will change this year on, when the two leagues run in parallel, leading to a greater pool of players to choose from. That, in turn, will spell busy times for player agents, as there is a tussle for players and salaries, which was never seen before in Indian football.
“During the I-League, around 45 players earned a salary of about Rs45-50 lakh. Now, we have seven-eight players over the Rs90 lakh mark, around 10 over Rs60 lakh and around 25 who make over Rs25 lakh. So it’s not like the overall spending has shot up, but more players now command a decent salary. Our job is to identify our targets based on their performance and their ability to sell,” Kichlu says.
Going by the profile that the two leagues have been reduced to, many agents advised their players to wait for the ISL draft, instead of picking up the big bucks on offer in the I-League, especially from the Kolkata clubs.
“Only teams like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Neroca started building their squads in advance. As the ISL is better organized for now, most players prefer playing there,” says Vaibhav Pawar, director at Supersub Management, who placed five of their players at ISL clubs through the draft.
Until last season, the ISL was every player’s dream, given that the tournament would run for only two months while the I-League lasted double the duration. Given that the ISL will last as long as the I-League this season onwards, the agents, on their part, had a tough time negotiating deals for those who had seen the easy money.
“The international players used to say that the ISL was payday for them. It was a quick buck since it was such a short league. This season on, they will earn the same money but will have to play longer, though it’s still a lot more than what they would be paid back home. But I think the salaries have now been normalized,” says Baljit Rihal, CEO at Inventive Sports.
So while the players tend to receive no compensation for the extra hours at work this season onwards, it’s a different story for their representatives, who are finally in the money after years of struggle.
“From the player representation point of view, we’ve seen quite an increase in turnover over this season. We would attribute it to more opportunity, given more players are needed and also our work in the industry being respected by teams,” Sharma says.
Most agents then think the ISL is a blessing for business. From the onset, the tournament hogged eyeballs from around the world. No longer was it impossible to dream of drawing the big names—and not necessarily the best—especially with club owners flashing deep pockets.
Through an international partnership with a United Kingdom-based firm, AMG was able to bring down David James to Kerala Blasters. While Canadian Iain Hume was originally brought down by another agent, this season, Rihal’s agency bought exclusive rights to represent him in India. He was instrumental in taking Hume back to Kerala, where he has a decent fan following.
“It’s become as flexible as that. The worldwide rights still remain with his original agent, who is his childhood friend. This doesn’t restrict the player in any way. It’s normal for a big name to be represented by multiple agents,” Rihal explains.
The big players were open to coming back in the day as well, but the I-League just wasn’t on par with leagues in China, Australia or the US. The agents too chose to play it safe during those times.
“A few years ago, I nearly brought Anderson from Manchester United to Pune FC on loan. However, the player’s agent, Jorge Mendes, didn’t think it was appropriate. I am sure the opinion of a lot of foreigners has changed now,” Joshee says.
Nothing comes as a surprise these days in Indian football. It’s a fact that not all imports are of the highest quality. But as the ambitions of club owners rise, it’s sending agents laughing all the way to the bank.
The agent’s role goes beyond just finding his player a club. From technical advice, marketing, bagging endorsement deals and even running their social media handles, it’s a one-stop shop for a player.
“Most players that we work with are known to us for a long time. We understand them not only as players but as people,” Sharma says.
Perhaps one of the newest players on the block, Karan Amin, represents everything that an agent stands for. The former Mumbai FC player has four of his ex-teammates under his belt, since he set up Pro Elite just three months ago.
“I still play football with them and when they needed someone they could trust, they approached me. Today, I not only handle their contracts and brand endorsements, but also advise them on investments that they could make, which will help them in the long run,” Amin says.
Though the end result may not be in sight yet, things are changing in Indian football. Gone are the days when deals were struck over a cup of tea or contracts signed on scraps of paper. At the heart of it, there is the agent—a thorough professional, who knows the game and its pulse, perhaps even better than the player he represents.
“The core of this understanding between a player and an agent will always be founded on trust. It’s the same with the agent and the club,” Lamba says.
Ever since Lamba, a school friend of Chhetri’s, entered the field, there was no thinking twice. For four years now, Chhetri has been represented by him—the same amount of time he’s spent at Bengaluru FC.
“I think he (Chhetri) could play anywhere he wanted, but I know he loves India too much. I cannot see him wanting to leave, now that the ISL is in place,” Joshee says.
Unless of course, Lamba cracks the next big deal for Chhetri.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer who dreams of the mountains and lives for long road journeys.
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